Korea: Smart English-language education

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jan 25 15:53:31 UTC 2008

[Editorial] Smart English-language education

A plan by President-elect Lee Myung-bak¡¯s transition team to replace
the English-language proficiency section of the college entrance exam
with a ¡°rating-based¡± English-language ability test beginning in
2013 drew a mixed response. Parents sighed at the thought of the
additional financial burden, as they can soon expect to spend more
money on tutors or private cram schools in order to supplement their
children¡¯s education in the areas of listening and speaking, as well
as reading and writing. In contrast, private cram schools are said to
be happy with the emergence of a new market. While transition team
officials say the plan is aimed at reducing the amount of private
tutoring and enhancing English-language proficiency, their response to
the problem does little to get at the heart of the matter. Why?

At first glance, there is nothing wrong with the goal of introducing
an English-language ability test. During last month¡¯s presidential
election, Uri Party candidate Chung Dong-young proposed a similar
plan. Chung¡¯s idea was to do away with the English-language
proficiency section of the university entrance exam and introduce a
state-sponsored English-language recognition system. In comparison
with Lee¡¯s proposal, the differences are few. The purpose of both
proposals is to reduce the cost of private English-language education
and narrow the gap in the quality of an educational system that relies
heavily on for-profit institutes. In South Korea, about half of the 30
trillion won (US$31.6 billion) spent annually on private education
goes to English-language instruction at private cram schools. No one
can blame students who take private lessons or go abroad to learn
English, because proficiency in English determines which
special-purpose high schools and mainstream universities students will
be able to attend, as well as their future employment. Efforts by
politicians to cut private education expenses and bridge the gap in
English-language proficiency are therefore reasonable.

But there is a set of realistic concerns that deserves careful
consideration. Although the intention of the policy is great, it could
cause confusion and negative side effects unless appropriate
conditions are set. For instance, if the rating-based English test has
a significant effect on the college entrance exam, students will go
through fire and water to earn higher marks. What¡¯s worse, if
universities and special-purpose high schools include English-language
essays or interviews as part of their entrance exams, it will just
prove to be a boon to private cram schools. The bigger problem is that
most middle and high school teachers have difficulty teaching
listening and speaking skills. Though the transition team says it will
train some 3,000 English teachers a year, it won¡¯t be easy. If public
schools fail to fulfill this goal, it will only help to expand the
private education market. To make up for the weak points in the plan,
the transition team says it will institute an English-immersion
program, which would require that high schools teach a variety of
subjects in English. However, it is highly likely that such a scheme
will cause students to fail to achieve their goals in both regular
subjects and English-language proficiency.

There should not be a rush to reform. The government should focus
first on hiring talented teachers and forging more cooperative
relationships with universities. In Finland, whose citizens have one
of the highest levels of English-language proficiency among countries
in which English is not the first language, there is neither an
English-language recognition system nor an ability test.
English-immersion courses are limited to the study of English as a
subject. The Finnish government simply makes an effort to employ
competent teachers and makes good use of English-language broadcasts.


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